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"Pas, salaam, shalom…"
With thousands of people milling up and down barricaded and police-patrolled Fort Benning Road, a voice sings out the lyrics of the peace song. This voice causes a reaction on the surface of your skin. It has a primordial quality. The song is big and beautiful and travels down Fort Benning Road reaching those that have just arrived in Columbus, Georgia. Pat Humphries continues to sing and is joined by Sandy O, and then the crowd joins in. Pat and Sandy are Emma's Revolution and they sing a song for peace at the School of the Americas Protest.
The arrival of protestors at the gates of Fort Benning is part of a much bigger week-long teach in and non-violent event coordinated by the School of the Americas Watch. 2005 marked the 15th anniversary of the School of the Americas Protest, held annually at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, where the School of the Americas (SOA), or the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security and Cooperation (WHINSEC) - as it was renamed in 2001 - resides. The purpose of the Protest is simple: to shut down the School, under whatever name it adopts.
The SOA/WHINSEC's mandate is to train soldiers from the Americas. Graduates have been linked to some of the worst atrocities and most repressive regimes across Latin America, including the assassination of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, the massacre of the community of El Mozote, also in El Salvador, as well as Chile's General Augusto Pinochet's inner circle. Pinochet's sword is encased in glass and is displayed in a hallway of the SOA/WHINSEC. But it is not only Latin America's history that has been affected by the SOA/WHINSEC. A massacre of eight people in February of 2005, including three young children, in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in Urabá, Colombia was linked to the Colombian military's 17th Brigade, which is led by an SOA graduate. It was for reasons like these that 20,000 people from across the Americas came to Georgia for the SOA Protest. The annual call to shutdown the infamous School is relevant, strong, and popular. It is also musical.
Folk singer Pete Seeger has called the SOA Watch movement the "singin'est movement since the Civil Rights movement." Music is omnipresent at the SOA protest. It is structurally imbedded in everything that goes on over the weekend. There are singers and musicians that inflect and punctuate the message of the speakers throughout the day. There are concerts, puppetry with music, and a solemn procession with a mournful melody. Protesters come to Fort Benning with their instruments, and they play everywhere.
"Music is cathartic," says Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, who played at the protest. "Sometimes it's just fun, sometimes you need your spirits lifted or you need to kick up your heels. It actually plays a lot of roles. Music takes us out of our pain, or brings us closer to our pain, reminds us of it, makes us live through it."
Harnessing music's ability to affect us emotionally and move us through emotional levels is why many believe this movement has lasted for 15 years and has been so successful, "Not all movements understand the importance of music the way the SOA Watch does," notes Sandy O, who has played at demonstrations across North America. "SOA Watch uses liturgical sounds for the funeral procession for the folks that have been murdered by students of the school. But it also uses upbeat music and sing along music and dance music and puppetry to keep peoples' energy up." She adds, "This is a very heavy subject and a very intense time in the world, and music and the arts and puppetry and dance and poetry are the kinds of things that keep your spirits up while your mind is saying this is pissing me off and I want to do something about it. The arts get the rest of your body involved so you can do something about it."
Keeping people positive in the face of torture and atrocity and formidable opposition to change has also been crucial to the success of the Protest. Medea Benjamin, founder of GlobalExchange and CodePink, was a speaker at the protest and is a long time supporter of the SOAWatch movement. Medea believes in humour, positive energy and emotional engagement to bring about positive change in the world. "I believe that we should make the movement fun. I don't want to go to something where you're just brought down and feel like, oh no, isn't it awful and you don't have any inspiration to keep doing it." Medea believes that a movement based on guilt will not last long. "If [the protest] is based on feeling communal bonds with people who think like you and who really believe that life is the most sacred of all concerns and they are able to show that concern in a way that's fun and loving and spirited, I think that's great, and that's important to me."
Music has come to play a central role at the Protest because the SOA Watch movement is inspired by and deeply connected to Latin America where music is also central. Colleen Kattau, a long time musician for the SOA Watch, sings many Latin American songs. For Colleen, Latin America is a source of inspiration for change for a better world, and for the music involved in bringing about that change. "For Latin Americans the music was so much a part of the revolution; the artists were so much a part of the revolution." She explains. At the protest Colleen sang a song by Victor Harra. "He was killed because he was too dangerous because of his 'armed guitar', that's what they called it, the 'gitarra armada.' Music and revolution are really inextricable."
In light of this influence the Protest's main focus is a solemn procession conducted in the Latin American tradition. Throughout the procession the names of the victims are sung out in the Catholic tradition of the litany of the saints, and for each name sung everyone together calls out "presente." "It's part of the Latin American tradition that when people have died they may be gone in body but that their spirits are still here," explains Chris Inserra, music coordinator for SOA Watch, who has been singing out the names of the murdered and disappeared during the solemn procession for the past six years. " We need to call forth their spirits to remind us, not only who they were, but why they are no longer with us, to give name to the horror and the torture that caused their death. Singing out their names calls them forward."
During the procession protesters hold crosses marked with the names of those who have been murdered or disappeared at the hands of SOA/WHINSEC graduates. They slowly make their way towards the gates of Fort Benning. The gates are barricaded with lines of fences that are erected for the protest and the protesters place their crosses on the fence. It is a powerful moment and it is usually during this time that those who choose to commit to non-violent acts of civil disobedience do so by crossing over or crawling under the fence and onto the base. For this they are arrested and fined $5,000 and face six months in a federal prison.
Because the penalties for crossing the fence are so harsh few people are able to commit to this action. "But crossing the line is not the only way [to have an impact]," points out Sandy O. "There's a bill in congress that has more bi-partisan sponsors than it's ever had and that's why Pam Bowman [SOA Watch legal coordinator] can say we have confidence that we're going to win that vote in the spring. So the sheer number of people that are here who are going to take the message back home and call their senators and representatives and get the School shut down, [that] has a lot of impact."
"It's difficult in this political situation when it's been so partisan and there are conservative factions that seem to have taken over America," admits Emily Saliers. "But then you come here and there are 20,000 people and you realize that – I mean, this is my America. And you've heard witnesses, people who have been tortured in Latin America who brought generals to justice. So victories are being won. I believe in social activism, I believe that it makes change. It's not like music is solely saving the world, it's just something that adds to the spirit of good change."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.